Published on October 4th, 2012 | by Jacob Carroll5
The Geek Canon: Star Wars
Try to remember the first time you watched it. Try to forget about the Ewoks. Try to forget about Jar-Jar. Try to forget about the Christmas special, the prequels, the theme park ride, the clone wars, and the rest of George’s empire. Actually, try to forget about George Lucas. I know it’s difficult, but try to think back to the time when you first saw the opening crawl, when you saw the camera pan across a field of stars, or when you first heard the screams of the Imperial Starfighters. It might have been in a movie theater, or through the analog static of late night television, or, like me, you might have slid the VHS tape out of the bulky trilogy box set (either silver or gold) and popped it into the VCR. It doesn’t matter how it happened, but each one of us experienced Star Wars for the first time. For most of us, it was incredible.
During the late 60’s and early 70’s, American movies were reborn. The studio system had collapsed, and hungry young directors who had grown up watching movies from the golden age of Hollywood were ready to make their own movies. They were eager to retell the myths of Classical Hollywood in their own way. Scorsese would refashion the crime film into a dark personal vision; Coppola made All-American epics about gangsters and war; Spielberg brought poetry to the family film and Science Fiction. During the peak of this shortly lived renaissance, a young filmmaker named George Lucas graduated from USC film school and became Coppola’s apprentice. Based on the reception of his debut feature, THX-1138, he was offered a two-picture deal with United Artists which led to a coming-of-(teen)age movie set in the 50’s, American Graffiti, and a space opera called The Star Wars.
The New Hollywood was short lived. In 1974, Jaws changed the face of the movie business forever. Pre-Jaws, all movies were limited release. They started out in New York or L.A. and based on their popularity, they spread across the country picking up hype and viewers along the way. Publicity campaigns were prolific, but word-of-mouth contributed significantly to the movie’s bottom line. When Spielberg had put the finishing touches on his pop-art masterpiece about a godless killing machine off the coast of a small New England town, Universal knew they had a hit on their hands and decided to make an event of it. The Godfather debuted on 5 screens. Jaws debuted on 464. The plan worked and Jaws became the highest grossing film of all time at that point. The business model for the next 38 years (and counting) of Hollywood filmmaking had been set.
If Jaws would dictate how people saw movies, Star Wars would dictate the types of movies people saw. At it’s most basic level, Star Wars is an effects-laden action movie with heart and humor. It is self-evident that those three elements have continued to bring in big box-office receipts ever since. It is difficult to overstate the influence Star Wars has had (for better and worse) on modern Hollywood cinema. How many sidekicks have we seen be purely comedic and have their own adventures? How many tough guys who act like they don’t care but really do? How many damsels in distress that seem tough but almost always need saving anyways? How many lead characters who want something very badly and have to overcome nearly impossible obstacles to obtain it? How often has technology dictated the types of movies we see? Star Wars is the true ancestor of modern mainstream Hollywood cinema.
Since the success and influence of Star Wars, Hollywood has been trying to replicate the massive cultural phenomenon of Lucas’ empire. They have rarely been successful. The world has never embraced anything quite like they embraced Star Wars. With each new tent pole release, toys are manufactured, product tie-ins are abundant, and the media blitz is overwhelming, but audiences haven’t seen anything to equal their love of the story of Luke, Leia, and Han. Why this one? Why this action sci-fi movie as opposed to many others?
One of the main reasons for the success of the franchise was the Great Leap Forward in special effects technology. Star Wars truly brought the audience a new type of practical effects that were seamless and revolutionary. Technology has always been a great way to get people excited about a movie. Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, and Toy Story, represented steps toward a complete digital terrain that was cemented by the arrival of Avatar. Audiences flock to these kinds of movies because of the novelty involved. But novelty does not beget Yoda Christmas tree toppers. Star Wars had a staying power that filled the imaginations of millions and went beyond mere excitement for a new type of explosion or gun shot.
One of the great powers of cinema is self identification. The faces we see on screen are better looking than us, wealthier than us, more famous than us, but upon those faces we project all our deepest hopes and fears. “He” becomes “Me.” Audiences didn’t know much about the world that Star Wars took place in, so Luke became our surrogate. We saw that fascinating world through his eyes. We have all wanted to be great or do something that matters just like Luke. His frustration is ours. We can identify with the obstacles he faces, and when he succeeds we can imagine that we have succeeded. George Lucas understood the power of storytelling and studied mythology to find out what kind of story audiences would emotionally engage with on a deep level. When Luke stands on the edge of the Tatooine desert and stares at the twin sunsets contemplating a better life elsewhere, and the strings of the John Williams score swells to a deafening volume it‘s hard not to get emotional. Star Wars was not only an eye-popping spectacle, but a deeply emotional story of self-actualization.
George Lucas also studied other works to understand the visual aspect of cinema. During his formative years, he watched with awe the avant-garde creations of Stan Brakhage, and admired his ability to create emotional responses through pure abstract cinema. He also admired the films of Akira Kurosawa and John Ford. In them, he saw how to create spectacle along with emotionally engaging characters. He saw how to inject humor into the story to break the tension (He owes a large debt to Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress). Due to his study of John Ford (the most classical of all directors) Lucas knew how to use composition, editing, lighting, and camera movement to create an exciting, beautiful picture. On Tatooine he fills the frame with robot-trash and odd characters. It seems like the Cantina holds a million stories just like Luke’s. It is no surprise that an entire subculture has been dedicated to cataloging and codifying the inhabitants of the Star Wars Universe. The backgrounds seem to recede into the infinite. The beautiful little touches seem to never end: Vader’s shiny black helmet and terrifying rasp, Han’s cowboy vest and sly smile, the nervous-looking eyeball that pops out of the ooze in the trash heap, Luke finally getting a chance to put his womp-rat execution skills to good use, and the final glorious explosion of the Death Star into a billion little pieces that scatter into the stars.
Star Wars remains the quintessential popcorn movie in an age of popcorn movies. It is a fun, goofy thrill ride that lets us explore a new world that is very different from our own with some fascinating characters who aren’t that different from us. I think geek culture specifically is about escapism and self-identification. We want to be taken to a different universe and have an experience that is meaningful to us. Often, this leads to arrested cultural development (a topic for another time), but mostly it leads to amazing otherworldly experiences, both cinematic and otherwise. No fictional galaxy would be more fun to explore, no characters would be more fun to befriend, no adventure would as fun to experience, as Star Wars. That is why it deserves it’s place at the center of the Geek Canon.